‘Un­der­dog’ to pre­vail in star-driven series

Houston Chronicle - - SPORTS - BRIAN T. SMITH

Fit­tingly, it’s come to this

The Astros won a World Series af­ter let­ting J.D. Martinez go and re­ceiv­ing noth­ing in re­turn.

They were still great enough with­out one of base­ball’s best hit­ters.

When the fran­chise that Jeff Luh­now and Jim Crane re­built cap­tured its first cham­pi­onship —ahead of sched­ule, over­com­ing legacy teams with in­ter­na­tional fol­low­ings and cen­turies of com­bined his­tory — the famed Bos­ton Red Sox an­swered play­off de­feat by hir­ing Alex Cora, who was pre­vi­ously em­ployed as A.J. Hinch’s bench coach.

Fol­low the leader. The shin­ing 2017 tro­phy that will al­ways be­long to the city of Hous­ton is all the proof that will be needed. The Astros’ mas­sive over­haul reached liftoff. They were tested by the Red Sox, Yan­kees, Dodgers, trade-dead­line con­tro­versy and a hur­ri­cane, and they over­came ev­ery­thing. But here we are again. Hous­ton’s ball­club ver­sus Bos­ton’s. A prime-time na­tional stage for the 2018 Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Series. And even though the 103-win Astros set a fran­chise record for reg­u­lar-sea­son vic­to­ries, have the best pitch­ing staff in the sport, just swept Cleve­land in the AL Divi­sion Series and are base­ball’s reign­ing champs, there was more than a lit­tle truth to this:

“Some­how we’re go­ing to en­ter the series the un­der­dog,” Hinch said Wed­nes­day at Minute Maid Park as the wait be­gan for a dream series for MLB. He was jok­ing. Sort of. “I think we have the best team, but now we have to go out and prove it,” Hinch said. “You’ve got to win four games against the team that had the most wins in the league. That in it­self is a chal­lenge.”

Base­ball should have no prob­lem pro­mot­ing this pair­ing. Po­ten­tial Hall of Famers. Mod­ern launch-an­gle power; old-school power pitch­ing, de­fense and speed.

‘15 or 20 house­hold names’

The 2017 AL MVP, the likely ’18 AL MVP, Alex Breg­man’s supreme con­fi­dence, Craig Kim­brel fir­ing out of the pen, and for­mer Astros (Martinez, Cora) hav­ing led the 108-win Red Sox to the most reg­u­larsea­son vic­to­ries in fran­chise his­tory. This series re­ally does have it all, eas­ily over­shad­ow­ing the odd Dodgers-Brew­ers pair­ing in the Na­tional League Cham­pi­onship Series.

Prov­ing just how spe­cial and mem­o­rable this ALCS could be, Hinch proudly ran through all his sta­dium-sized names: Jose Al­tuve, Ge­orge Springer, Car­los Cor­rea, Justin Ver­lan­der, Ger­rit Cole, Dal­las Keuchel, Breg­man.

Then the Astros’ man­ager paid trib­ute to the team that will host Game 1 on Satur­day night at Fen­way Park.

“I think we’re go­ing to look back at the names on both sides in the com­ing years and re­al­ize there’s a huge amount of qual­ity play and star ap­peal to this series,” Hinch said. “It’s about the play­ers. You can name two man­agers, and you can name a cou­ple coaches. But you can rat­tle off 15 or 20 house­hold names in this series that base­ball should be proud of.”

Five sea­sons af­ter their re­build bot­tomed out at 51-111, the Astros have earned the lux­ury of wait­ing around while the Yan­kees and Red Sox fight it out. And even with Bos­ton’s sur­real 108 wins and 27-14 cu­mu­la­tive beat­down of New York in the ALDS, Hinch’s Astros — deeper, more ex­pe­ri­enced, bat­tle-tested but still hun­gry and driven — are the smart pick for four more Oc­to­ber wins and a re­turn ticket to the Fall Clas­sic.

Cora was forced to turn to ALCS Game 1 starter Chris Sale in relief to hold off the Yan­kees. Hinch didn’t even have to use Char­lie Mor­ton, one of the Astros’ strong­est arms and last sea­son’s World Series Game 7 win­ner, to sweep the In­di­ans.

Bos­ton’s bullpen does not in­spire pub­lic faith. The last time the Astros played a play­off game at Fen­way, Breg­man screamed from the top of a shak­ing dugout and Hinch’s cel­e­brat­ing club posed for pic­tures in the Oc­to­ber rain. John Far­rell was fired two days later, lead­ing Bos­ton to Cora.

“We did win last year. We still feel like we’re the team to beat. We’re very con­fi­dent in this club­house,” said Breg­man, who has be­come the spokesper­son for the even-bet­ter orange and blue in 2018. “We also know that we have a tough task ahead of us, and if we want to get to where we want to go, we have to take it one pitch at a time from Game 1.

“It’s go­ing to be a fun en­vi­ron­ment to play up there in Bos­ton. They have great fans. They’re into ev­ery pitch. They know the game of base­ball, sim­i­lar to how our fans are here — Hous­ton fans are un­be­liev­able.”

Rul­ing on the road

It has be­come so easy to be­lieve in the Astros.

We ex­pect the ALCS and wait for the World Series. You’re pick­ing them in five, six or seven — the lat­ter is my se­lec­tion — and point­ing to the best road record (57-24) in the sport.

They can miss on Martinez and still end up with a ring. They lose Cora to the Red Sox, then back Ver­lan­der with Cole and turn 101 wins into 103.

Bos­ton has the his­tory and re­ceives the na­tional spot­light. If this ALCS lives up to its 211 com­bined vic­to­ries, the Red Sox will be the tough­est con­tender Hinch’s club has faced since the Astros started win­ning again in 2015. It’s ob­vi­ously fool­ish to over­look a 108-win team.

But as Oc­to­ber reaches its next stage and the reign­ing champs head north, know this: Base­ball is still try­ing to fig­ure out how to beat the Astros.

Adam Glanzman / Getty Im­ages

It won’t be any trou­ble for Car­los Cor­rea, left, and Ge­orge Springer to get sky high for an Amer­i­can League Cham­pi­onship Series that pits two teams that com­bined for 211 reg­u­lar-sea­son wins. That ties for the most in a league cham­pi­onship series in base­ball his­tory.

Bob Levey / Getty Im­ages

The star power at the dis­posal of Astros man­ager A.J. Hinch, from left, in­cludes 2017 AL MVP Jose Al­tuve, 2018 AL MVP can­di­date Alex Breg­man, 2017 World Series MVP Ge­orge Springer and 2017 ALCS MVP Justin Ver­lan­der.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.